No. 1 Florida Earns Spot in Final Four

The podium at the post game press conference looked familiar to Florida players and head coach Amanda O'Leary. Last year, they sat at the podium and talked about falling short of the Final Four following a 13-9 loss to Duke. On Saturday, that podium elicited a different response after Florida pounded Penn State 15-2 to earn the program's first Final Four berth in its three years of existence.

"I remember sitting in this exact spot last year and being so upset, thinking that we could've done this or that to go to the Final Four," said junior Kitty Cullen, who scored two goals. "We've worked so hard in the offseason to progress and become a better team, making sure that didn't happen again."

The improvement showed on Saturday in an effort that wasn't in doubt much after it started. Florida freshman Shannon Gilroy scored two goals in the first 3:03 minutes of play before Penn State answered to cut the Gators' lead to 2-1.

That sparked the Florida offense.

The Gators scored five unanswered goals to carry a 7-1 lead with 7:24 left in the first half. If the top-ranked Florida defense could've held Penn State to the average the Gators allow (6.4 goals), that would've been enough. The defense didn't even do that.

Florida held Penn State to two goals on seven saves from junior goalie Mikey Meagher.

"The defense was incredible," Meagher said. "To have those seven in front of me—I love them. You can't ask anything more of them because they go out with so much heart.

The Gators made it clear early in the game that they would set the pace. Penn State controlled the opening draw and stalled, a tactic Florida faced last week in its 6-4 win over Albany.

Florida got a steal and ran down the field to get off to a quick lead. When the offense scored five unanswered goals to take a 7-1 lead, the Nittany Lions stopped stalling because of their need for goals.

The quick-strike Florida attack flipped the momentum of the game, and in the humidity they play in every day, the Gators were able to wear down Penn State.

"It's a huge boost and spark," Cullen said of the quick goals. "Mikey will make a save on one end, and it gets us pumped up to score again and keep scoring. Once you score once and get the ball again, you want to keep going and pushing it because we're just going to get up by more."

That's exactly what happened. The Florida defense shut out Penn State in the second half while the offense continued its fast tempo to get the ball up and down the field.

The Gators were able to dictate their own pace because of a 15-4 advantage on draw controls. Florida head coach Amanda O'Leary was notably upset about the struggles in that category during the first two years, but Gilroy has served as the team's specialist and changed what the offense can do.

"Shannon is a huge part of that, but we're also maturing through that competitiveness of the ground balls and balls in the air," O'Leary said. "I see these guys with a hunger of wanting to get that ground ball or get that ball in the air. I think that's probably one of the biggest improvements to our game."

Florida will play Syracuse, one of the two teams it lost to earlier in this season, in Stony Brook, N.Y., on Friday at a time to be announced. Syracuse defeated Florida 12-11 in overtime earlier this year.

The win on Saturday means a lot to the coaches and players that have built the Florida lacrosse program up from scratch, but they're hoping to return with a moment that tops what happened in Gainesville on Saturday.

"It's a tremendous accomplishment and one that I'm incredibly proud of, but we have some more work to do," O'Leary said. "I hope that I'm standing up here in a little while and tell you that this isn't the most proud moment and that we will have a couple more."

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